Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The elevator is out again. Matthew walks the first two flights, then stops on one of the landings; he bends his head back, raises both arms, smiles at his father without saying anything. Nelson picks him up, thinking, four years old and five more flights, good thing I’m in shape. Matthew crooks his neck over his father’s shoulder and buries his face in Nelson’s tousled red hair, humming all the way up to the seventh floor.
When Nelson and Matthew enter the apartment, Terry is dancing in the living room, still in her nurse’s uniform, her shoes half under the couch. The Fine Young Cannibals are on the radio and she is singing along with them in falsetto, sliding and shuffling the dirty toes of her white pantyhose across the dusty hardwood floor as she bobs and bops, moving her arms at her sides as if she were running in slow motion.
Terry smiles when she sees them.
“Hi, little boy,” she coos.
For a moment, Nelson thinks she means him, wishes she did. He puts Matthew down, gently ruffling his fine, damp hair and says, “Go dance with Mommy.”
Matthew runs across the floor and hugs his mother’s knees, almost toppling her. She bends down, kisses the top of his head, blows into his hair, making it rise up for a moment around her face, and then disentangles her legs. She takes both of his hands in hers and dances with him.
Terry looks up at Nelson, watching them from the doorway. She reads something in his face and gives him a quizzical look. Nelson shakes his head, raises his eyebrows, grimaces, miming the futility and the fatigue of the day, and walks off toward the bathroom.
He hears Terry ask Matthew about day care.
“Troy’s mother has a microwave,” Matthew says.
“Troy’s mother isn’t as good a cook as Daddy is,” Terry tells him. Nelson smiles.
He splashes water on his face and on his neck, then rubs both vigorously with a towel. He looks at his face in the mirror, green eyes, liquid and iridescent — molten Coke-bottle glass, Terry tells him — high cheekbones, skin pale as ivory. He shakes his head, thinking about the events of the day.
As he prepares dinner, he listens to Terry and Matthew playing in the living room, voices and laughter rising and falling. These sounds, and the sounds of the knife on the cutting board and the water in the kitchen sink, soothe him.
Terry comes into the kitchen and goes to the refrigerator.
“Matt wants his juice now,” she says. She contorts her face in mock rage, raises her hands up and turns them into claws. “Now!” she roars. “Juice Now!”
Nelson smiles faintly at this.
Terry asks if he’s OK, presses into him from behind as he slices carrots; she nuzzles his neck.
“Later,” Nelson says.
“It happened again,” he tells her, after Matthew has been put to bed. They are sitting in the kitchen, drinking herbal tea. Terry has changed out of her uniform and into sweats. Her long black hair is in two braids, and she looks like an adolescent.
He’s sure she knows what he means, but she just shakes her head at him.
“I went to see the doctor today, to have that wart taken off my leg.” Nelson stops, runs a hand over his face, through his hair; he shakes his head. “I was in the waiting room and this guy, he must have been in his sixties, and he looked, I don’t know, perfectly normal, almost conservative. . . .”
“Did he say the same thing?”
Nelson smiles briefly; she knows. “He stood on the chair. I mean, there were only seven or eight people in the room, but I guess he wanted everyone to be sure he was talking to all of us.”
“What did he say?”
“Something like, ‘At approximately seven miles from the epicenter of a nuclear blast, the eyes of anyone looking in the direction of the flash will be melted.’ And then he just sat down again. It was like he was reading from a script.”
“Maybe he was reading from a script.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, you think this is what, normal? You think you’ve seen this twice this week because people are just spontaneously beginning to do this kind of thing? Come on, it’s a publicity thing, it’s organized, it’s the Freeze people or something.”
Nelson is looking off in another direction. “I don’t know. I don’t know what it is.”
Terry nods. “Look, I don’t have anything to apologize for or any reason to feel guilty. And neither do you. We do things. We write letters, we sign petitions, we give money, I go to marches.” She gestures to a picture on the kitchen wall: Matthew in a stroller, Terry standing behind it, at one of the marches in Washington. Jobs, Peace, and Justice. Freeze Nuclear Weapons. Hands Off Central America. End Apartheid. Money For Housing Not For War.
Nelson shrugs and looks at the floor. “We do things,” he reiterates softly.
The following afternoon, Nelson is in the tunnel under the engineering building — another world, pieces of other times. Traces of the Manhattan Project — like a higher than normal background radiation level — can be found under the physics building. There are civil defense supplies everywhere, in all of the tunnels, olive-drab oil drums filled with inexplicable combinations of things: cans of drinking water, rodent-gnawed packages of military crackers, sanitary napkins, toilet seats.
Someone slashed a feeder cable in the tunnel, knocking out six terminals in one of the computer rooms. The damage isn’t enough to make replacing the cable worthwhile, but it takes Nelson several hours to reassign the cable pairs and switch the terminals over to good wire. Life goes on in the tunnel around him: people taking shortcuts between buildings; Buildings and Grounds workers going to and from the powerhouse — half of them in their fifties, beefy Irishmen with bristling white crew cuts, well-chewed cigar stubs in their mouths, half of them Haitian, younger, shorter, more muscle than fat, railway men’s kerchiefs tied around their heads, black skin sheened with sweat.
Nelson doesn’t look at anyone and no one looks at him. Here, as elsewhere on campus, his tool belt tells people what he is, where he belongs. He doesn’t mind that the students and most of the faculty talk down to him, that the tool belt puts a barrier between them. He works as a technician only part time, and the job is relatively undemanding. More important, it is flexible, which allows him to take care of household chores and keep up with whatever Matthew needs. Nelson has a master’s degree in history, but nothing he could do with it would pay as much as Terry makes as a nurse.
Terry looks uncomfortable when he comes home that evening, less sure of herself than usual. “There was something about it on the news,” she says.
“About it?” Nelson asks.
Terry shrugs and waves her hands around in front of her. “It’s happening a lot. I mean, not just here. They gave it a name. They called it ‘testifying.’ You know, like it’s some kind of religious thing or something.”
Nelson nods slowly. “Well, maybe it is.”
“And maybe it’s just a bunch of people all going crazy at the same time, you think?”
Matthew doesn’t really know how to use chopsticks and Nelson hasn’t felt like he should begin to worry about it. A four-year-old, Nelson thinks, should still be allowed to spear things.
Matthew is spearing things — vegetables, pieces of chicken, the cat when she comes into range, which she does only once, a fast learner. Terry and Nelson are trying to keep the discussion on a reasonable level and away from Matthew, who doesn’t seem the least bit interested. They speak elliptically, in modulated voices. Nelson, who feels that the burden of proof is his, nods his head in Matthew’s direction, aware that Terry will think this unfair, manipulative, aware that — in some ways — he is goading her into a position to which she isn’t really committed.
“Well, what about? . . .” Terry hisses, clearly angry.
But her willful incomprehension annoys Nelson. “You know damn well ‘what about.’ What would happen, if? . . .” He lowers his voice, “Or to — he nods his head in Matthew’s direction again — “if something happened to us?”
Terry shakes her head and puts down her chopsticks.
“This is stupid,” she says. “You know what would happen. We’re lucky. The city is a primary target. We’ll just be vaporized.”
Nelson nods several times, doesn’t respond immediately.
“We’re lucky,” he echoes hollowly. “Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t want to be vaporized. And I don’t want. . . .”
Matthew holds a chopstick in either hand, an over-equipped orchestra conductor, ready to begin. “Vaporizer,” he says, a faint memory from when he had the croup. He looks from his father to his mother and back again, waiting for someone to compliment him on his vocabulary.
And it is Terry who blinks first.
Nelson swims in the university pool — daily — ears sealed, eyes goggled, head ensconced in rubber. Under water, sounds still come through: the beeping of digital watches — people timing themselves, lap by lap, or reminding themselves when they have to leave; the percussive sounds of their bodies diving and flopping into the pool; the rhythmic thrashing of feet and arms in the water. And today — something different — a new sound, one he hasn’t heard before, reminiscent of the sea mammal sounds he knows from public television; not the song of the whale, not the high-pitched squeal of the dolphin, something lower, more urgent, something between a bark and a gulp, a half-aborted sound, a sound a sea otter might make.
Nelson’s head breaks the surface of the water at the end of the pool, and he looks to his right. There is a woman there, his mirror image, clad in goggles and swimming cap. Her suit, a yellow one-piece, is loose in places, cotton perhaps instead of something synthetic and sleek. What Nelson sees when he looks at her — looks quickly and then turns away — is that the sound has been coming from her. There is moisture inside her goggles as well as outside; there is a slackness to her mouth that is pain rather than lack of breath. She has been crying underwater.
A vision of her life floats in his mind. Someone new to the city, overwhelmed, taken unawares, months already in an unsatisfactory living situation, sleeping in what would be a living room anyplace else. No privacy. Three people sharing one apartment — and her roommates frequently have lovers who stay over. No chance of huddling on the floor in the bathroom to cry. No office of her own. No space.
He does the best he can, demonstrates urban sensitivity, keeps his eyes averted, and continues his laps.
Usually, Nelson sees more than he hears in the pool. He watches women underwater instead of listening to them, watches the rippling of muscles, sometimes languorous, sometimes violent, the rhythmic opening and closing of legs, the clenching and unclenching of buttocks. It is his primary form of infidelity. He has discovered that larger women look better underwater than thin women. Somehow — as long as their proportions are good — the water is a kinder lens for them than the air; he is periodically surprised to see the size of some of these women when they emerge from the pool.
Nelson nods his head and makes appreciative sounds, thinking about other ways he could have spent his Wednesday. He wishes the mechanic would just tell him how much money the whole thing is going to cost, instead of putting them both through an explanation the mechanic knows Nelson does not understand. What could he say? Could he object, suggest that maybe the shimmy in the front end is just a wheel out of balance or a simple alignment, that replacing the ball joints doesn’t seem necessary to him? Are they going to bargain about this?
But there is some sort of terribly important ritual being acted out. The mechanic must know from experience that it is not the work but the explanation that will justify the amount. On and on he drones, something about ball joints and tie rods, how it’s going to cost more if he has to use a torch, how city streets are particularly hard on front ends.
The garage has no waiting room to speak of, only a metal folding chair next to the cash register. But Nelson has allotted the day to this task and has no place else to go. There is a greasy copy of El Diario on the chair and Nelson picks it up before sitting down. He scans the paper for forty-five minutes, occasionally glancing through the open door to the service bay, watching the progress on the car. By the time Nelson has stood up to stretch, the mechanic has the torch out.
The garage is just off 125th Street, at the end, near the river. There’s an on-ramp and an off-ramp for the Westside Highway, a diner, a few meat-packing plants, a wholesale warehouse with live chickens and fresh goat meat. Nelson has been there to get the main ingredient for a Jamaican goat curry. All of these buildings are in deep shadow, underneath the elevated highway and the Riverside Drive viaduct. In the middle of this, on 125th Street, is a bar called The Cotton Club. Nelson isn’t sure if this is The Cotton Club — it seems unlikely — but for several blocks north and south and at least a block or two east, it’s the only thing in the landscape that doesn’t seem industrial and gray, deserted and — he resists the word — post-nuclear.
That night, lying in bed, Nelson and Terry talk about the same thing they have talked about every night that week. Someone testified in the nurses’ lounge that afternoon; people all over the hospital are talking.
“What is it that we always tell Matthew?” Nelson asks. “That when there’s something wrong he should talk about it, right? That it’s bad to hold it in, that holding it in will make him feel worse, and that if he holds it in nobody can do anything to make it better.”
“It isn’t the same,” Terry says.
“No. We also tell him to try and accept things that he can’t change, not to make himself unhappy about things he can’t do anything about.”
Nelson nods to himself, first slowly and then with increasing conviction. He tries to tell her that he thinks maybe something can be done, that it’s perfectly reasonable to be unhappy about nuclear weapons. Protest and political action shouldn’t be roped off for once in a while.
“On street corners. Like crazy people,” she responds sleepily, closing her eyes, curling up on her side, stroking the pillow with her cheek.
Nelson throws up his hands angrily. “What the hell is so sane about keeping quiet? When did we let ourselves get embarrassed into being calm? We shouldn’t be calm and we can’t be quiet.”
Terry opens her eyes again.
Nelson’s voice becomes softer. “I’m not talking about screaming on street corners like a crazy person. I just, well, what does testifying mean? It’s saying that you see something, that you know something has happened, or that you know it’s still going on. And that it’s wrong. ‘This is wrong and we should think about it.’ ”
“I think this is wrong. I think you should think about this.”
“I have been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I haven’t been able to think about anything else since that guy in the doctor’s office.”
Terry raises her head from the pillow, looks at him steadily.
“What do you want me to say, that I think this is a solution? That if only people would, what, stand up and complain about this every day, that would solve it? Isn’t it a little bigger than that? Aren’t these people just doing something else to make themselves feel better?”
Nelson takes a deep breath and rubs the back of his neck. “I am not hysterical,” he says, slowly and carefully.
“I know you’re not,” she says, still looking at him.
“And I’m not obsessed, and I’m not delusional. . . .” Terry begins to say something else but Nelson waves her off. “No. Listen to me. You know this has happened before. It happens all the time. The Jews in Germany thought they were the safest, most well-assimilated Jewish population in the world. They thought it was unthinkable that anything could happen to them, that the government would move against them. But it happened. And right up to the end, as they were marching into the gas chambers, there were people who were saying, ‘It’s nothing to worry about, just showers. They wouldn’t do anything to hurt us.’ ”
Nelson stops and takes another breath.
“I am not saying that there’s going to be a nuclear war tomorrow and that we’re all going to die. . . . I’m just saying . . . it’s possible. It’s possible, you know, the pieces are all in place. And what’s so wrong with being concerned enough to want to do something?”
Terry puts her head back down on the pillow, shrugs, closes her eyes again. “How is it going to help?”
“I don’t know,” Nelson answers evenly.
On Saturday, they take Matthew to see a matinee of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The weather is good, so they walk through Riverside Park instead of down Broadway. Matthew points to something scurrying through the underbrush.
“Squirrel?” he says.
Nelson follows the direction of his hand and squints. “Rat,” he says with some distaste.
Terry takes Matthew’s other hand.
After the movie, Nelson seems dazed, as if the change in light from theater to lobby has been particularly difficult this time. He nervously fingers a small slip of paper. Terry holds him by his elbow and Matthew holds his hand. He’s in the middle, as if he were the little boy.
Nelson gently disengages from his wife and child, looks slowly around the lobby. He clears his throat.
Donald N. S. Unger